My grandfather was an ice fisherman in Manitoba, and my grandmother was obsessed with catching salmon in her home state of Alaska. But, I'm no fisherman. My brother took me about 10 years ago — I cast a few times, then stopped for the rest of the day to enjoy the spectacular views.
But when a friend invited me on his commercial fishing boat in Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino, B.C., I jumped at the opportunity to see a biologically rich area on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Since I eat salmon, I felt obliged to catch it myself at least once. And I wanted to learn more about the lure of the fisherman's life.
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We headed to the small test fishery near the village of Ahousaht, the hometown of Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. We arrived to a mix of sun and misty rain, which produced endless arrays of rainbows. My friend's small boat catches salmon when they swim into a long line of net about three meters deep and 400 meters long. We "set" the net by dropping it behind the boat and running at a slow speed to pull it off a large drum into the water, then waited about 45 minutes before reeling in the drum.
As the net rolled in, we untangled the fish. The captain effortlessly "picked" the salmon within seconds while I struggled to get a grip on the slippery fish. It reminded me of untying a difficult knot—if you pull the right string it's easy; pull the wrong way and things get worse fast.
As we moved the boat back to place another set, we counted the fish and put them down in the cooler. We filled the time between sets with snacks, and conversation that leaned towards the political. It was fascinating to listen to my friend and another local fisherman (and village elder) discuss issues. Both were concerned about fishing culture, and what policy would do to independent fisheries.
Though each set brought in between 20 and 70 salmon, we caught only a tiny fraction of the fish in the area, leaving most to return to their rivers to spawn. In my few days on the boat, I saw that fishing can provide a decent living to those willing to do the hard work, but it also has many restrictions. While regulation is necessary, we also need to make sure that small and local businesses are allowed to flourish. And if we take care of ecosystems, they will continue to provide for communities indefinitely. Fisheries management has to consider ecosystems, culture, trends, and First Nations' rights. This complexity makes the case for careful—and inclusive—planning.
Despite the late nights and early mornings, I was invigorated and inspired by the trip, and I hope to be invited again. On our final day, we unloaded our catch by hand (about 600 fish) from the refrigerated hold into the truck. I caught my first sight of the full moon, circled by a huge "moon dog" and thought of my grandparents. I'm still no fisherman, but I walked in their boots for a couple of days, and learned to love it.